Gotham Gazette

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Fully Reopening Schools Right: How The City Must Start Planning Now to Build Trust and Focus on Healing

mayor chancellor tour

The Mayor at school (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

On Monday, many New York City students will return to their classrooms -- 50,000 for the first time this year. Many more will go from two days to five days per week in-person. 

But 650,000 of our students are still learning fully-remotely. Many “in-person” high-school students are just on Zoom in classrooms instead of at home.

Meanwhile, among both in-person and remote families, trust in the New York City Department of Education to meet their children’s needs has eroded. The process for communicating with families and school staff has been rocky, confusing, behind closed doors. Schedules and reopening dates continue to change at the last minute, making it virtuall y impossible to provide children with the consistency they need for meaningful learning. 

Many remote students still don’t have access to reliable internet or are in ultra-large classes where they don’t get the support they need. And too many of our students, families, and teachers, particularly people of color, have lost loved ones this year with little institutional support or understanding from our school system. So it’s no wonder many families and teachers remain hesitant and frustrated. 

In order to rebuild the trust of families, students, and educators and fully open up our schools in the fall -- safely and supportively for all our students -- we need to do a much better job of planning together. And we need to start now.

First, we should immediately establish School Reopening Councils in every school, at the district level, and at the citywide level. They should include the principal, teacher and staff representatives, caregiver and student reps from both in-person and remote cohorts, and diverse students including those with IEPs. We should use a little of the $6 billion our schools will be receiving from the American Rescue Plan to pay teachers and caregivers for the time needed to participate, so that all families can afford to do so, and so that teacher and staff time over the summer is compensated.

We can’t keep waiting for every decision to be made in secret, between Mayor de Blasio and UFT President Mulgrew -- in a process that doesn’t include families or rank-and-file staff. The unions representing workers have a critical role to play, but we need an open dialogue, guided by data and the lived experiences of our school communities, with all stakeholders at the table.

The School Reopening Councils should start by surveying students, families, and staff on what they need to feel confident coming back to school in the fall. We have urgent work to do to build trust and solidarity, where it has unfortunately been badly strained. These reopening councils should then be given as much flexibility as possible to propose scheduling and programming plans for the 2021-2022 school year driven by the real, on-the-ground needs of their school communities. 

At the same time, City Hall and the Department of Education must provide clear guidance. The mayor’s cavalier answers and last-minute announcements aren’t going to rebuild anyone’s trust. We need clarity now on a wide range of health and safety questions: What level of citywide vaccination, and what threshold of COVID-19 cases do we need to hit together this summer in order to fully reopen schools? We had metrics as we closed things down. Where are the metrics for opening them back up? What safety protocols will need to remain in school buildings this fall? What will happen for families who still want to remain enrolled in remote learning? 

We believe that every adult in our school buildings should be required to be vaccinated for COVID-19, and we should move quickly to vaccinate younger students as soon as the FDA/CDC authorize it. We need City Hall to establish those rules now so families have a clear understanding of what the school year ahead will hold. 

Health and safety guidance must also be disseminated to families consistently in their home languages. Too many families have been left out of the conversation this year because of language barriers.

Finally, the mayor should make it a practice to inform principals and school communities first of changes to policy before announcing changes on Twitter or in the press. 

For principals to plan for reopening, they need to know soon which staff members are planning to come back, so they can spend the summer hiring for vacancies. That means the Department of Education also needs to establish clear guidelines now for what medical accommodations they will allow.

Meanwhile, every single school needs the resources and autonomy to meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of its students -- in ways they never have before. And they need to get the necessary budget now, so they can start planning with families. 

It’s great that schools will receive 100% of their Fair Student Funding for the first time ever. But that’s just $600 million of the $6 billion that our schools are getting from federal American Rescue Plan funding. Most of it is one-time funding, so we have to be thoughtful about how we use it. 

At a minimum, every school must have a full-time guidance counselor, nurse, and school social worker next fall. It’s outrageous that they don’t already (and that there are more NYPD school safety agents than counselors and social workers combined). Schools should also get one-time funding for community-based arts, culture, movement, and outdoor programs, organized around healing and resilience. Finally, the city must fully remove police from schools to reassure families of Black and brown students that buildings will be safe not just from covid, but from police violence and criminalization. There is no way to make schools the restorative, healing places they must be with police and metal detectors at the door. 

The city should also direct schools to focus on community building and students’ social-emotional needs throughout September. To support this, we should continue this year’s policy of making state tests “opt-in” rather than mandatory, so teachers will feel comfortable taking the time they need to get to know their students and focus on restorative learning experiences through open dialogue, writing, art, music, storytelling, and nature. 

Separate from the federal American Rescue Plan funds, new recurring Foundation Aid funding from the New York State Legislature -- won after years of tireless organizing by the Alliance for Quality Education, KidsPAC, and many others -- should go primarily to reduce class sizes. Smaller classes will help address covid fears and give remote-learning families more confidence to come back to school buildings, will help teachers meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of their students, and will improve educational outcomes in the long-term. It’s a win-win-win.

With good communication, ample resources, trust, and time, we can fully reopen our schools with confidence. If we start now, if we involve all stakeholders, if City Hall provides clear guidance, if we insist on prioritizing social and emotional as well as academic needs, then we can teach our kids the most important lesson of all: that when we work together, we can keep each other safe, and help each other thrive. But only if we start now.

Brad Lander is a New York City Council Member and candidate for Comptroller. Naila Rosario is president of NYC Kids PAC, a parent-led political action committee focusing on New York City schools. Liat Olenick is a New York City public school teacher and activist. On Twitter @bradlander, @rosario_naila & @Liat_RO.

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